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Here, kid, try this machine gun


It was a wonderful warm spring day in 1991 when I walked into the local mall and discovered the ground floor had been turned into a military encampment.

Camouflage material was draped everywhere. The space where local groups normally pitched their fundraisers and part-timers sold from mobile carts and hawkers peddled the latest exercise machines was given over to military vehicles, a variety of weapons stations, a tent and tables behind which sat military personnel.

Shoppers at The Gap and the bulk candy store had to maneuver through the paraphernalia of Desert Storm to make it across the mall to Abercrombie & Fitch and the gourmet coffee shop. The gods of commerce meet the gods of metal.

All that was unnerving enough, right in little Freehold, N.J., where we then lived. The town could have been, except for the peculiar brand of East Coast congestion, Anywhere U.S.A. What made the scene even more disturbing -- when the effect of sunlight faded and one could see clearly what was going on -- was the realization that this display of battlefield hardware was specifically aimed at luring kids.

Last month I recalled that mock battlefield when Dominican Sr. Ardeth Platte sent me a set of pictures, some of which are shown on these pages, taken last May 15 at Andrews Air Force Base, scene of the “Department of Defense 1999 Joint Services Open House.” The show, titled “Sights and Sounds of Freedom,” was essentially a display of military hardware with some conventional air show acts thrown in for kicks.

It is no secret that youngsters love speed and power, and in that regard the military can put on quite a show. The stunts involve considerable skill, courage and incredible technology. It is an awesome display.

But the events begin to verge on criminal when kids are allowed to cozy up to battlefield weapons, site down the barrels of guns bigger than they are and imagine … imagine what?

That’s where the scenario really begins to get weird.

What are these kids thinking at this moment? What are their parents telling them?

I recalled that back in Freehold, standing stunned before the mall display, I asked myself, “What if I began inviting the kids to try out smoking. Oh, mind you, we wouldn’t really light up. Just see how it feels. Teach them how to hold that old cigarette between their fingers, flick off the ash with a certain nonchalance.

“Or we could give them a little introduction to alcohol. Of course, not the real stuff, just pretend. But they could pour the pretend stuff from real bottles and see how it feels to sit at a bar and engage in cocktail chatter. You know, just a little taste of some grownup stuff.”

I would have been, rightly, carted off for corrupting the morals of minors. I would have been the community pariah, a nut case to be kept far from kids.

No tobacco. Booze is definitely out. But an M-16 or a grenade launcher? Sit in the cockpit of a helicopter gunship or let that 10-year-old run his fingers over the missile launching mechanisms of a fighter jet? Not only do you have the government’s approval, but dad and mom will stand in line with the kids, encouraging them to enjoy their turn at the next weapons station.

What more could we offer our kids? Seminars based on School of the Americas manuals?

One need not argue from the position of an absolute pacifist or call for dismantling the military to voice disgust at a government operation that encourages youngsters to handle weapons capable of enormous destruction.

The military officials who put these shows together and the parents who stand in line with their kids for an intimate look-see are not telling the youngsters that these are horrible machines of war that they hope will never be used.

Platte, a long-time peace activist who lives at Jonah House, a resistance community in Baltimore, has been arrested and jailed dozens of times for acts of civil disobedience at military installations. After witnessing the kids and weapons at Andrews Air Force Base, she wrote to the Department of Defense raising objections to the show and the involvement of youngsters.

She drew a connection between the mass violence of war and encouraging young people to embrace weapons of war and increased violence closer to home -- on our streets and in the schools in places like Littleton, Colo., Fayetteville, Ark., and elsewhere.

Perhaps, as the Department of Defense responded to Platte, there is no direct connection, no way to draw a straight line between military hardware shows and the insane acts of tormented school children. Such science may not exist. But it would be far more ignorant to pretend that mass violence and glorification of the military have no influence on daily life in the United States, one of the most violent cultures on earth.

There are also other connections that influence. From the “Be all you can be” ads for the Army to the dragon-slaying, sparks flying, video-game animation ads for the Marines, the culture accommodates ultra-romanticized notions about things military.

Add to those romantic notions the fact that practically the only way left to obtain financial aid for higher education is to volunteer for military service or join the ROTC program on campus and the fact that half of all the funds Congress has to appropriate are given over to the defense budget, and it becomes clear that we are more than a little out of balance.

We might not think of ourselves as a military state or a state that glorifies war, but how we spend our money and what we choose to honor sends a different message.

And our public officials go into verbal convulsions to explain themselves. William T. Harris III, Armed Forces Day coordinator for the Defense Department, responded to Platte’s letter:

“The fact that we permit youngsters to handle weapons and observe aerial and other military demonstrations at these events does not mean, nor does it imply, that we advocate the improper use of those weapons. In fact, the military stresses the safe use of weaponry in all its training, including major exercises involving tens of thousands of troops. Our rules of conduct regarding personal behavior, which have been ratified by the Supreme Court, are purposely tougher than those found in civilian life in part because we put so much more responsibility in the hands of those who carry and use weapons.”

One can only suppose, based on Harris’ letter, that we should be glad that the military emphasizes safe use of weapons. Otherwise, he doesn’t seem to get it. Whether used properly or improperly, weapons of modern warfare should not be presented as so many gleaming wonderful toys to impressionable young minds.

“Massive violence has been accepted historically by citizens … because it has been presented as a means to good ends,” wrote historian Howard Zinn in Declarations of Independence, (1992, HarperPerennial).

That is precisely the point Harris made in his letter, characterizing the United States as a post-Cold War “defender of freedom and protector of the downtrodden.” Platte was able to write her letter of protest, he said, because “Many uniformed men and women have died fighting for your right to write that letter, and you should be proud of that. Truly, God does bless America.”

The implication in such responses is that disagreement is not only unpatriotic, but a slap at the God who blesses as well.

The truth is, of course, that God does not bless the mass violence, the indiscriminate slaughter. Nor could God bless the introduction of children to instruments of mass violence.

“All of us, therefore, as we approach the next century, face an enormous responsibility: how to achieve justice without massive violence,” Zinn continued. “It is the monumental moral and tactical challenge of our time. It will make the greatest demands on our ingenuity, our courage, our patience and our willingness to renounce old habits -- but it must be done.”

Following the horrible events at Columbine High School, President Clinton, in soaring moral tones, declared, “We must reach out to our children and teach them to express their anger and to resolve their conflicts with words, not weapons.”

Good advice, if only we could get our public servants to follow it.

In that encounter in Freehold, I watched the kids scurry around battlefield vehicles, squinting through night-vision scopes and fingering machine guns.

Youngsters -- some just barely beyond toddler years -- were able to conclude the vicarious war experience by donning a military jacket and grabbing a scaled-down weapon. Military personnel were available to apply camouflage markings to young faces. Then they were marched to a mark in the floor and cheerfully told to stand at attention while a picture was snapped. Like when they went to see Santa Claus.

We must, as Clinton said, reach out to our children. But if we are to teach them nonviolent responses to conflict, we must start by leading them away from the battlefield.

Tom Roberts is NCR managing editor.

National Catholic Reporter, November 12, 1999